Reacting vs. acting

Nov 1, 2017

The performance level of football in the Netherlands keeps getting further away from the international elite. Dutch clubs and the Dutch national team have fallen from the top spot they had, and now face an almost impossible challenge in getting back up there. The Dutch Royal Football Association (KNVB) has released a strategy to this end, called “Winnaars van Morgen”, or Tomorrow’s Winners. The report has received a lot of criticism and one point of criticism was towards the failure of the KNVB to recognize the lack of tactical intelligence of Dutch players.

A big part of the report was about creating a better mindset in young players. This is not wrong per se, but the report basically said that the technical and tactical ability of players is still sufficient, which it is clearly not anymore (see also this Dutch article from VI Pro). Arnold Bruggink, one of the leading TV-analysts in Dutch football, highlights in this column the difference in tactical ability and flexibility between Feyenoord and Manchester City in the recent Champions League match between them.

We decided to analyze the game ourselves and came to the same conclusion as Bruggink, and probably everyone else who watched the game: Feyenoord was tactically far inferior. Not only because Manchester City has better players or the formations the teams started in. Feyenoord players simply did not know what to do.

They were only capable of reacting to the behavior of the Citizens. By definition, reacting means you will always be one step behind the one who is acting. In the Eredivisie Feyenoord can get away with that, simply because they are usually better than their opponents. On the grand stage of European football, reacting will not work against better opposition. You will need players who are tactically aware, can read the game and act on it. Acting requires (tactical) intelligence, reacting does not.

One example of the difference in tactical intelligence was clear in how the teams tried to disrupt the build-up of the other team. For Feyenoord, it mostly went something like this:

Only one player is putting on pressure at a time. There is always a passing option for City because the Feyenoord players don’t cover the possible passing lanes and are only focused on their marker. City had a different approach:

Here, the team decides to press after a backwards pass from Van der Heijden. Instead of just running towards the on-ball player, the City players look around to see what the on-ball player’s passing options are. Then they proceed to block those passing lanes only then reduce the space of the on-ball player. Feyenoord couldn’t play out under Manchester City’s pressure, because Dutch clubs are not used to play against teams who press like Man City does.

Another striking example between the acting City and reacting Feyenoord is in the following clip.

First, Walker acts by offering support. Nelom reacts by leaving his zone and pressing Walker. De Bruyne acts by entering the zone that Nelom left unguarded. Boëtius reacts by following De Bruyne, leaving Fernandinho open in the middle. Fernandinho acts by asking for the ball, which leads to Boëtius abandoning De Bruyne and trying to press Fernandinho. Of course, he is too late and Fernandinho is able to play a great through ball to De Bruyne who has a lot of space to put in a cross.

These are just some of the many examples present in that game that show the importance of acting in modern-day football. At the tempo the game is played nowadays, one step too late can be fatal. You need your own tactical game plan and players that know how to execute it.

Tactical ability and awareness is one of the great frontiers of football these days. Now that the differences in physical ability between top clubs are not that big anymore, creating tactical intelligence can make the difference. Starting tactical learning at a young age should therefore be a top priority for Dutch clubs and the KNVB. We are already behind on this, and with the report Winnaars van Morgen, it won’t get better anytime soon.